Christian Dior. The late bloomer who invented the New Look

resilience & tenacity

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It took Christian Dior four decades to put on a show, but the gallerist turned designer won over Paris from the word go.

Christian Dior’s back door entrance into the world of French high fashion was almost unique. For the first 41 years of his life he was what could be best described as a dilettante-drifter, always on the edges of fashion and the arts.

Born in 1905 in Normandy, France his family lived a comfortable bourgeois life supported by a successful fertiliser company. As a boy, he lived in his own world, amused by “anything that was sparkling, elaborate, flowery or frivolous,” he wrote many years later, and his greatest love was for flowers and plants.

Like so many couturiers, he adored his mother and her Belle Époque way of dressing was fixed in his memory forever. His father, in one of these misdirected actions that can often blight the career and even life of a son not understood, wished Christian to join the Diplomatic Corps. He was sent to study in Paris but, in probably the first example of what later flowered into a will of iron, Christian spent all his time on the fringes of the bohemian creative world of Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Salvador Dalí and, Christian Bérard, the illustrator who would play a significant role in the success of Dior’s first collection.


Before that, however were hurdles to clear.

Dior dipped and dived into anything new and avant-garde, including politics: he briefly called himself an anarchist, even visiting communist Russia where he was repulsed by the totalitarian rule, poverty and lack of idealistic social structure.

He opened an art gallery, funded by his father, with the proviso that the family name was not used in connection with it. It was the sort of gallery where friends dropped in, stayed, but never bought, unaware that their presence might inhibit potential customers too nervous to spoil their fun by actually entering the premises.

That all came to an end with the Great Depression, which ruined his father and not only forced the closing of the gallery but also made it essential for Dior to find a way of earning a living. Even though he sold all the stock of the gallery, including Picasso and Braques, he lost his apartment and had to sleep on a friend’s floor.

Christian Dior’s dark days living rough on a pauper’s diet led to tuberculosis and a year in convalescence.

Dior, however, was a survivor.

With help from his flamboyant friend Bérard’s contacts Dior began to sell sketches of designs for hats to newspapers and eventually was offered a job with Swiss couturier, Robert Piguet. It was Dior’s first tentative step towards a serious involvement in fashion and it lead to a job in the design studio of Lucien Lelong, who more a businessman than a designer, employed young talents to produce ideas he then edited into a collection. In Lelong’s studio, Dior worked alongside Pierre Balmain.

Drafted into compulsory farm work at the outset of war Christian returned to Paris in 1942 to work in haute couture, having rejected Balmain’s suggestion that the two of them should set up a couture establishment together. Instead, he took advantage of the great demand by German officers’ wives and the Berlin plutocracy for Paris couture. Dior’s ambition, which had laid fallow for so long, began to sprout into his own ideas for a business, ideas encouraged by Balmain’s triumphant opening of his eponymous house in 1945.

Marcel Boussac, a millionaire and industrialist known as ‘the cotton king of France,’ had factories standing idle at the end of the war. He planned to buy a fashion house to create work that would keep the machines turning. He offered Dior the opportunity to revive a defunct house called Philippe et Gaston. Dior declined. He was not interested in raising a company from the dead, but was interested in creating a new fashion house in his own name, as Balmain had so successfully done. Boussac agreed and financed the enterprise. The house of Christian Dior launched on December 16, 1946 at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris. 


At 41, Dior commenced his fashion career; stylishly and confidently it reflected his privileged early years and the learnings he had gleaned from associating with many of the world’s great modern artists. He was able to create a management team and surround himself with some of the most elegant and strong women in French fashion, including the larger-than-life Mitza Bricard.

The debut collection, Corolle, Dior offered to an excited audience on the morning of February 12, 1947 was an instant sensation. Alongside the genuine excitement that his sweeping skirts, tiny waists and padded hips evoked there were also questions: how could someone with such a ‘dismal’ track record pull off such a dramatic coup with clothes not unlike any ever previously seen? Every garment a confident, total statement of fashion authority not seen for years.

An insider, a great friend of Christian Bérard and his partner, Boris Kochno maintained, without demeaning Dior’s achievement, that the idea of the ‘New Look’ had three sources: firstly, and perhaps most obviously, Dior’s memories of the elegant dress of his mother and her friends when he was a small boy, followed by the impact of the performance of the play; The Barretts of Wimpole Street, one of the last plays to appear on the Paris stage before the German Occupation. It and its costumes were remembered nostalgically during the war for the delicious femininity of the women’s long dresses, flattering hats and softly draped bosoms. But, the real inspiration apparently came from Bérard and the sketches he made, as he and Dior talked long into the night about what the new collection should say.

True or false? Who knows? Either way, the next 11 years were a seminal time for modern fashion. During that period Dior was, without question, the greatest couturier of all. He changed the world’s perception of fashion  taking it from its previous role as an arcane pleasure for an endogamous tribe, to an interest for everyone, even including men.

Evident through his sublime creativity and exceptional business aplomb. Today, when the commercial side of a fashion house is equally, if not more important as the creativity, it is hard to imagine how revolutionary his approach to business was for those days.

He set up a publicity machine that became a template for all who followed; he opened stores in New York and London; he wrote personal programme notes for the press and, along with Jacques Fath, was the first to really understand the commercial value of the American market. Unlike others, he took couture across the globe to places such as Cape Town and Caracas, gathering on the way clients of the calibre of Eva Perón. With his partner Jacques Rouet he pioneered licensing in the fashion business.

There was much luck in Christian Dior’s success, he was absolutely the right man for the right place at the right time. He gave back glamour and beauty to women starved of both during the war. He made it possible for all women to be fashionable. He was admired by contemporaries such as Balmain and Balenciaga, despised by Chanel and copied by designers everywhere.

The company Dior created, the House of Dior, and the foundations he laid for it have proven to be a structure for the long haul.

 image attribution Top Photo by Mark Shaw / via The National Gallery of Victoria. Sourced from


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